Helen Fielding Returns with Bridget Jones

13 minute read
Radhika Jones

In March 2012, Helen Fielding made a note in her diary. She had been writing up comic scenes of London life in random files on her computer–“Just little moments,” she says, “the funny things that happen”–and she suddenly wondered if she could turn them into a book. This is the kind of thing that could happen to any writer, but the next thing could happen only to Fielding. “I realized the voice was Bridget’s,” she says. “And I thought, That’s going to raise the stakes a bit.”

Bridget, of course, is Bridget Jones, Fielding’s archetypal late-20th-century single woman, whom we last saw as a calorie-counting, career-addled 30-something with an overbearing mother, a circle of boozy friends and a library of ineffective self-help books. With plots loosely based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, Bridget Jones’s Diary and the sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, rode the wave of the ’90s Austen boom (alongside Amy Heckerling’s Clueless and the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, among many other updates) while making giant waves of their own, selling 15 million copies worldwide and launching two successful films. Fans related to Bridget’s anxieties about her diet and love life, while feminist critics deplored her for obsessing about the same. A 2007 Guardian poll declared Bridget Jones’s Diary one of the 10 books that best defined the 20th century, along with Catch-22, The Great Gatsby and 1984.

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy (out Oct. 15) picks up in 2012 with Bridget at 51, a single mother back on the dating scene, still seeking inner poise and her ideal weight. At first, Fielding kept mum about reviving her heroine for the 21st century. She wasn’t being coy; she was reliving a time of no expectations. Bridget Jones began life in 1995 as the fictitious byline of a weekly newspaper column about the madcap life of a single girl. Even Fielding’s best friends didn’t know she was writing it. With the new book, she says, “I could be very honest in the way that I was when I first started writing Bridget, because no one was interested.” It may sound like a paradoxical desire from a writer, but then, this is the year that J.K. Rowling was outed for publishing detective fiction under a pseudonym. And what Rowling is to young-adult fantasy, Fielding is to thinking-woman’s comedy.

The Mill Maiden’s Tale

Fielding grew up in Morley, Yorkshire, a textile town with dozens of mills, one of which was managed by her father. At 15, during school holidays, she worked in the weaving shack, pulling leftover wool from bobbins. (She is aware that this sounds absurdly Dickensian.) She went to university at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, where she fell in with a creative set including actor Rowan Atkinson (Blackadder, Mr. Bean) and Richard Curtis, who went on to write Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. “She was performing in a play,” Curtis recalls about their first meeting. “She was dressed as Marlene Dietrich. She was very, very pretty and not very good at acting.”

He was struck, though, by her self-deprecating sense of humor. “That contradiction was so extraordinary,” Curtis says–this sharp, attractive woman who looked on herself as a figure of fun. He immediately asked her to be his girlfriend. Instead they became friends. A few years later, when Curtis launched the pilot program of Comic Relief, his fundraising effort for famine victims in East Africa, he called on Fielding to help produce and host satellite segments from Sudan. Her voice, with its appealing directness, set the project apart from a traditional news documentary. “She kicked off the style and informal personal nature of these fundraising films, through which we’ve raised about $1.5 billion over the years,” Curtis says.

Fielding’s first novel, Cause Celeb–a cynical take on celebrity involvement in global tragedies–was inspired by those events. It earned good reviews but sold poorly. She worked jobs in television and journalism and started a second, “unreadable” novel set in the Caribbean. In the meantime, she began secretly writing her Bridget Jones columns for the Independent: vignettes from the wine-sloshed nights and hungover mornings of an unmarried Londoner, with the texture of true life exaggerated to hilarious effect. In the not-so-distant past, Bridget would have been called a spinster. Fielding, sick of women being written off if they hadn’t settled down by their 30s, called her a singleton.

She didn’t claim authorship at first. Fielding was used to amusing her friends in private, not in public. But about six weeks after the column debuted, her good friend Tracey MacLeod mentioned that she thought it was funny. Happy and relieved, Fielding took credit. “I don’t think I would have dared write Bridget if I thought anyone was going to read it,” she says. “And I don’t think anyone would have let me if they thought anyone was going to read it. Someone would have come in with a pen and said, ‘Well, that doesn’t make sense, and that’s not a sentence, and who cares why it takes three hours between getting up in the morning and leaving the house?'” But nobody ordered Fielding to stick verbs after Bridget’s infectious exclamations (“Gaaah!”) or transform her into a morning person. The column gained traction, and Fielding turned it into her second book, which became a word-of-mouth hit.

Between the Diary’s Lines

Bridget Jones’s Diary was published in 1996, one year before the debut of Ally McBeal and two years before Sex and the City. In cultural terms, it harks back a generation, when the royal wedding you’d woken up early to watch on TV was Princess Diana’s. In technological terms, it is a relic from the Analog Age. No one texts or e-mails; they sit by plugged-in phones and listen to messages on answering machines. (At one point Bridget expresses NSA-surveillance-level horror at that invasive American invention, caller ID.) But if Bridget’s world feels archaeological, she also cuts a prescient figure for today’s urban women, deferring choices about marriage and childbearing, seesawing between professional ambition and ambivalence, and trying to have it all while also feeling free to drink quite a lot of chardonnay.

The diary, too, was prescient. With its time-stamped bursts of self-effacing updates it suggests a proto-Twitter feed. Bridget’s cigarette and calorie counts read as precursors to the quantified self. Through Bridget’s voice Fielding introduced a new vernacular. “She coins brilliant expressions,” says MacLeod, a journalist and talent agent who, together with director Sharon Maguire, provided inspiration for Bridget’s best friends Jude and Shazzer. “I’d never heard the expression ‘minibreak’ before she used it. ‘Singleton.’ ‘Smug married.'” The original serial form had helped Fielding keep current. “It was like Girls,” MacLeod says. “She was making comedy every week.” And Fielding’s brand of humor could sustain a book-length work without sacrificing its empathetic nature. “So often comedy is condescending about the people it’s about, and Bridget is never like that,” says Curtis.

Carrie Fisher, a friend of Fielding’s for more than 20 years, remembers a dinner party Fielding attended at her home with a bunch of comedy writers, mostly male, one of whom advanced the theory that all comedy is based on cruelty. “That shocked her,” Fisher says. “The reason she didn’t see it is that the humor is aimed at herself.” To critics of Bridget (lately reborn as critics of Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath) who wish she would get her act together, Fielding argues that humor couched in vulnerability is an expression of confidence. “If we can’t laugh at ourselves, we haven’t got very far,” she says. “To say we’re like this fragile minority–it’s nonsense.”

Fans were horrified to learn through an excerpt published in the Sunday Times on Sept. 29 that in the new novel–spoiler alert for those unacquainted with the Internet–the author had killed off Bridget’s love interest, Mark Darcy. Those already in the know were Fielding’s small circle of early readers: Knopf’s editor in chief Sonny Mehta, her editor Jennifer Jackson and the author Maile Meloy, who has been friends with Fielding for over a decade. (They met at a party in Los Angeles, when Fielding was introduced to Meloy, in an act of inebriated cultural conflation, as the author of “Bridget Potter’s Diary.”) “I was as attached to Darcy as anyone was, but Bridget moving on without him is a far more interesting story,” Meloy says. “I don’t need to read that never-written novel about married life with Mr. Darcy, in which he gets the kids to school on time.”

Fielding says Mark’s death was “absolutely inherent from the start.” As a woman in her 50s, Bridget would naturally have suffered losses. “The jokes in Bridget do come from something real,” Fielding says. “Pain and confusion and those quite serious things.” She got some fun out of it in real life when breaking the news to Colin Firth, who played Mark in both films. She tried to see him in person, but the scheduling didn’t work out. “So I ended up telling him he died on the phone,” she says, laughing. “I had to ask him if he had someone with him and if he was sitting down.”

By casting Bridget as a widow and single mother, Mad About the Boy emphasizes a quality frequently missed by critics of the first two novels, which is that their heroine, for all her apparent insecurities, is a tough nut. Diaries tend to function as dumps for self-loathing and despair, but even in the most humiliating of scenarios, Bridget almost always manages a clever comeback. As Elizabeth Bennet says in Pride and Prejudice, “My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me.” Bridget tends not to notice the points she scores against her horrible bosses, dates and rivals, but her instinctive wit puts her in the Bennet tradition. D.A. Miller, a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, who has taught Bridget Jones’s Diary in courses on Austen, notes that the diary form itself pays homage to Austen, lifting Fielding’s work above many pale imitations. Austen’s heroines aren’t writers, but Fielding’s is. Bridget’s storytelling, he says, is a “way of taking control of her situation.”

Texts, Twitter and Tattoos

Fielding has spent the past dozen years writing, including a fourth novel, Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination (2003), which fell rather flat, plus work on the Bridget Jones screenplays and a Bridget musical (a long percolating project that she maintains will happen someday). All this, she says, has made her better at plot, so for Mad About the Boy she didn’t borrow from Austen. Bridget does invoke the author, though, while trying to justify to her older friend Talitha (new to the franchise) her amorous plans with a younger man she’s met through social media:

“We’ve been texting for weeks. Surely it’s rather like in Jane Austen’s day when they did letter writing for months and months and then just, like, immediately got married?”

“Bridget. Sleeping with a twenty-nine-year-old off Twitter on the second date is not ‘rather like in Jane Austen’s day.'”

Texting and Twitter play an outsize role in the new novel, which finds Bridget solo-parenting two young children and seeking romance after a decade under Mark Darcy’s chivalric guard. Readers can find biographical parallels here if they choose. Fielding is 55, with two children: Dash, 9, and Romy, 7. She separated from their father, American comedy writer Kevin Curran, a few years ago and moved back to London after nearly a decade in L.A.

But Fielding tries to keep the Bridget Jones phenomenon separate from what she calls the “normal little tram routes of life.” Parenthood grounds her, with all its mystifying choices (mainly, in her telling, having to do with determining proper access to video games). So does her family, including her mother, sister and two brothers, all of whom, she says, share her sense of fun. Her brother Richard remembers the time Helen pointed out a review of one of her books. “It had equated her writing ability to that of a hamster,” he says. For her next birthday, he sent a set of toy hamsters.

As the author of diaries, even fictional ones, Fielding invites all sorts of intimacies. The charm that transfixed Richard Curtis at Oxford still operates. At a lunch celebrating Fielding at BookExpo America this summer, two guests whisked her aside to show her their identical Bridget Jones tattoos featuring a wine bottle festooned with a banner that reads no emotional f—wittage (a Bridget-ism fit for the Oxford English Dictionary). One of the tattooed pair, book blogger and librarian Stephanie Anderson, sums up what Fielding’s work has meant to many women over the years: “It’s like an old friend. The older I get, the funnier the books get.”

Austen’s plots are marriage plots, and ultimately so are Bridget’s. But Fielding’s novels (like Austen’s, and like Sex and the City and Girls) also revolve around friendship–something at which Bridget excels. Nor is the character’s staying power an accident. Fielding may have become a celebrity, but she is still very much a writer. “She has an amazing ear for rhythm in dialogue,” says Meloy. Fielding loves 19th century novelists because their chief goal was to make you turn the page. (She likes Jonathan Franzen because he does that too.) She reminisces about being alone with her laptop, the weaving of threads through a novel, the craft of composition. She’s a fan of Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

And as someone whose first reaction to literary success was to “pretend it hadn’t happened” and run off to a country cottage for six months, Fielding is attuned to the pitfalls of fame. “I think if I ever did do another one, I’d do Bridget Jones Becomes a Celebrity, because it is pretty funny,” she says. “But I won’t do that.” So she says, but she can’t know for certain when Bridget’s voice might return.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com